Sunday, June 26, 2011

Growing On Me With Each Listen, Imogen Heap Encourages One To Speak For Yourself!

The Good: Excellent lyrics, Moments of voice
The Bad: Almost universally vocally and musically overproduced, Short
The Basics: A fair album slightly above the average, Speak For Yourself gets a weak recommend based on lyrical strength and vocal potential.

Sharing music, like cooking for someone, is an act of love in my book. It might not be the most profound expression of love, but there is a power to music that is very real and true and especially as adults when music resonates with us enough that we want to share it, it is an act of affection. Music that has an effect on us we share because we hope it will affect those in our lives and there is a level of caring with that for many people. We want to enlighten, express and emote often when we share music.

So, when I was loaned a copy of Imogen Heap's Speak For Yourself and told how amazing it was, when it started with beeps, chirps and nothing resembling an actual musical instrument, my heart took a bit of a dive. After all, how could a friend have so missed my personality as to subject me to some silly pop? She had specifically recommended the track "Hide And Seek," which I played about twenty times before giving this album a pure listen. While I could instantly hear the brilliance and intrigue in "Hide And Seek," I was put off by the fact that Imogen Heap's voice was filtered through extensive production elements such that the vocals and the synths blended. Hearing the track, I instantly wished for an acoustic version of the song.

Speak For Yourself is a twelve-track 49:36 album by Imogen Heap, a pop-rock artist whose works might be considered alternative in that she has a very different sound than anyone else. She trends - on Speak For Yourself toward the dance/techno aspects of pop with lyrical sensibilities far more erudite and impressive than anything I've ever heard in those genres. The result is an album that is heavily produced but says something, an aural combination of Moby and Evanescence, probably most analogous to Dido. Imogen Heap presents music that sounds like what Ace of Bass would if their material had been written by Heather Nova. In other words, Imogen Heap sounds like herself; she's a tough nut to crack, though she's better than Bjork and probably more traditionally pop-dance than anything else.

The superlative factor of Speak For Yourself is the lyrics. My friend who introduced me to the music of Imogen Heap knew that "Hide And Seek" would resonate with me (bad breakup time) and the truth is she was absolutely right. After all, anyone going through abandonment issues is likely to appreciate lines like "Oily marks appear on walls / Where pleasure moments hung before / The takeover / The sweeping insensitivity of this still life . . . Blood and tears / They were here first . . ." ("Hide And Seek"). And the song takes an abrupt left turn with the accusatory questions, "Mm What d'ya say? / O that you only meant well, well of course you did . . . And you decided this" ("Hide And Seek") and it is wonderful and wrenching and horrible in its expressiveness. Great poetry does that.

And as much as the sound of the album initially put me off (right now "I Am In Love With You" is playing and it sounds like it was assembled by a computer), I have to admit that the Imogen Heap can write. She wrote and produced the entire album, so this is very much her creative vision and she does seem to have something to say. In fact, while "Hide And Seek," a breakup song, was what I was lured into the album with, I've been debating putting "Goodnight And Go" as the best track on the album. Far more fun, it is a song about fantasizing about the possibilities with wonderful lines like, "One of these days / You'll miss your train / And come stay with me / (It's always say goodnight and go) / We'll have drinks and talk about things / Any excuse to stay awake with you / You'll sleep here, I'll sleep there / But then the heating may be down . . ." ("Goodnight And Go"). Heap has a sense of fun that makes simple lines work and she has a playful storytelling style that works as well.

And it's rare to have a song that so focuses on resisting touch, but Imogen Heap does that - and well - with "The Walk." Rather cleverly she constructs a song about attempting to keep things as just friends with tension-filled lines like, "I feel a weakness coming on / It's not meant to be like this / Not what I planned at all . . . Stop that now / You're as close as it gets without touching me / Oh no, don't make it harder / Than it already is / . . . Freeze or make it forever / . . . It's just what I don't need" ("The Walk"). Imogen Heap writes about love, loss, the end of relationships and much on temptation.

And for the most part, she sings about these things rather well. If one seems to equivocate when penning an opinion on the vocals, it is for the simple reason that it is difficult to determine how much of Heap's voice comes through on the album. It appears that she has an impressive range from soprano and alto down into the tenor range.

The problem is, how much of her actual voice comes through is a bit of a mystery. Tracks like "Hide And Seek" and the album opener, "Headlock" have clear vocal production elements that obscure or enhance the singer's natural voice. "Hide And Seek" is entirely presented with heavy reverb and a downgrading morph in the voice that translates her sound into a computerized vocalization that has a mechanic sound to it. An acoustic version might not make the lyrics clearer - indeed even with the production elements transforming her voice, the words are all perfectly clear - but they would strengthen the emotions of the piece. Or, at the very least, it would have a different feel.

The exception to the vocal overproduction comes only at the end of the album when Imogen Heap loses the production elements for "The Moment I Said It." On this track, Heap presents her voice as that of a clear alto/soprano with the ability to hit the high notes and sing a musical story in a way that is emotive. The song is also one of the slower ones on the album and it catches the ear for both of those reasons.

For the rest of the listening experience, though, the listener tends to be overwhelmed by the sound of the music presented. Far from being as emotive or expressive as the lyrics might make one think - if they read the lines to the album before listening to it - the music is produced electronic music, pop riffs and synthesized basslines and percussion.

On songs like "Goodnight And Go," Heap produces the song to accent a young and peppy feel using higher, faster instrumentation, though the album credits remarkably few musicians. The point, of course, is that this is music assembled on a computer or a mixing board more than in front of an orchestra or band.

And it is fine for what it is. If one likes that sort of thing. Singing about rushing into relationships might not be the best utilization for a dance track beat, though. And while keeping a fantasy like "Goodnight And Go" light and upbeat might very well show as well as it tells, in the context of Speak For Yourself, it undermines the point because it follows a song that begins with computerized beeps and whistles and precedes another more techno track. In other words, it becomes hard to take some of Imogen Heap's songs seriously based on how they sound.

"Clear The Area" and "Closing In" could have been done by Ace Of Bass and that's no an insult, but rather a rather accurate way to describe this album. If one enjoys that style of music, this sugary pop sound works. Given the quality of the lyrics, I found myself wanting more from the sound of Imogen Heap. The thing is, the album continued to grow on me up until the moment I returned it to my friend and that, too, says something about its actual quality. I suppose this might be the album for those of us skeptical about the quality of techno/alternative pop should listen to because it makes it instantly impossible to dismiss on the quality of the content (lyrics).

And ultimately, it sounds good, that's what gives it inherent worth.

The best track is "Hide And Seek," which is wrenching and heartbreaking to listen to, the low point is the unmemorable "Just For Now."

For other female artists, be sure to check out my reviews of:
One Cell In The Sea - A Fine Frenzy
21 - Adele
The Jasmine Flower - Heather Nova


For other reviews of albums and singles, be sure to click here to check out my organized index page!

© 2011, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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